As I was thumbing through the liner notes to the Handsome Family’s new album Twilight, I came across the following two sentences. “I don’t know where any of these photos came from. I woke up in a pool of blood and there they were”. After a few minutes it occurred to me that this was probably lyricist Rennie Sparks’ morbid/funny idea of a photo credit; my first reaction, though, was that she was talking about her songs.
Creating bloody photographs is as apt a description as any for what the Handsome Family do. The history of American folk music is littered with death and murder; still, the Handsome Family stand out as particularly morbid. Twilight is equally divided between human and animal death; and like much country music since industrialization altered the South forever, it also bemoans the death of a way of life. The final track on Twilight, “Peace in the Valley Once Again” could be seen as upbeat, I suppose, but only in that by positing the apocalypse of our current culture, it offers the possibility of a better one.
Perhaps the most interesting — and certainly the funniest — of the death songs on Twilight is “So Long”, an ode to all the plants and animals one might kill in a lifetime, accidentally or otherwise. “So long to my dog Snickers who ate Christmas tinsel. So long to Mr. Whiskers who jumped out of a window. . . .” More than just being kind of goofy, “So Long” helps explain why The Handsome Family are so much fun to listen to: they’re obsessed with death but they have a sense of humor about it. For a band that could easily lapse into self parody, a few light moments remind us that these are real people spilling their guts.
If I’ve been rambling on about The Handsome Family’s lyrics, it’s not because their music isn’t worth talking about. Like a modern day Goffin/King in reverse, The Handsome Family churn out their songs with a strict division of labor. Wife Rennie Sparks does the lyrics; husband Brett Sparks does all the music — and in this case all means ALL (Brett recorded the album himself on a Macintosh computer and played all the instruments).
Unlike many one-man bands, Sparks’ music is subtle and multilayered. The opening track “The Snow White Diner” sounds traditional at first, but on repeated listens reveals itself to be a clever mix of country and Heroes-era Brain Eno. Little surprises like that pop up everywhere. Even on slow songs with sparse instrumentation, Sparks finds room for atmospheric keyboards and nifty chord changes. His voice, too, reveals itself over time. An instrument that appears at first to be tuned only to malaise, turns out, on closer inspection, to be capable of dissecting grief into any number of variants, from wistful regret to down-in-the-dirt depression.
The Handsome Family have been making music for a long time. They’ve hinted at greatness before, picking up fans in bands like Wilco along the way. But they’ve never achieved anything like Twilight: the best non-country country record of 2001.